Tucked behind the softball fields of Penn Park is Penn's very own apiary. At first glance, the small wooden enclosure seems to contain neat white boxes that almost look like the drawers of a filing cabinet. Crack their lids, though, and instead of hanging folders, you'll find hanging frames of live bees.
About once a week, you find Lucas Bolno (C’18), in a white canvas suit, examining the hives. An Environmental Science major and the co–founder of the Penn Bee–Keeping Club, Lucas has been bee–keeping since his freshman year of high school. The hobby began when his older brother started a bee–keeping club at his high school. Since his brother was a senior at the time, Lucas inherited his high school’s bee–keeping club shortly after graduation.
“He couldn’t just build them and leave them there, so they were like well alright we gotta do this with somebody else," Lucas says. "I basically helped them and learned with them along the way...and went on to head the club for the next three years.”
Lucas says his interest in bee-keeping stems from "the sustainability point of view", but he also genuinely loves taking care of the bees. "The whole experience is really enjoyable," he says. "And kind of, like, meditative to do."
For those unfamiliar with bee–keeping, the process is extremely complex, due to the intricacies of the bees’ social lifestyle. Lucas explains that although bees live in hives in the wild, they live in wooden, slated frames in the club's apiary.
As a bee–keeper, Lucas aims to disturb the bees as little as possible. He explains that bee–keeping is much more of a guessing game than anything else, really—“Your job as a bee keeper is essentially just to observe really carefully and occasionally intervene," he says. "You’re looking for particular symptoms, you’re looking for the way that they’re acting. The mood of the hive is something that you become aware of based on the sounds and movements that you see.”
Although it’s been over a year since the club was first founded in the fall of 2016, the bee-keeping process hasn't gotten much easier. Lucas had a particularly difficult time starting the hive in Penn Park.
“I had never done urban bee–keeping before, and I just think there was some health complications I had never dealt with before, so they went into the winter with uneven footing," he said. "They didn’t have that high of populations, they didn’t have that great of honey stores, and something that is less observable unless you’ve bee–kept for a while, is beehive unity, and they were not showing signs of unity; in fact, they [kept] having [continual] queen replacement, which made them generally really aggravated, and less willing to cooperate with me and with each other.”
Part of what Lucas describes as “hive unity,” is the overall attitude of the hive. Lucas explains that, with tamer, more unified hives, he generally does not like wearing the traditional bee–keeping suit. “I personally don’t wear a suit— it depends on the hive really. Some hives are really docile, really gentle, and they’ll only occasionally sting you," he says. "Some hives are really aggressive and I’ll feel uncomfortable ever not wearing a suit, which became the case with these in the later months…Typically I don’t like to because you feel like just a bit more friendly with the bees somehow, which is something that’s important to me. I feel kind of just more in touch with them, I guess… you get this feeling that if they aren’t stinging…you trust them and they trust you.”
Lucas attributes this hive’s overall lack of unity to their inability to keep a constant queen bee, which not only is responsible for maintaining the hive’s population (she lays her body weight in eggs everyday), but also is the heart and soul of the hive. Lucas elaborates on what he calls “continual queen turnover": the repeated replacement of the queen. It's one of the biggest problems the Penn Bee-Keeping Club has faced.
"We started with queens in all the hives, and in two of them the queens were [repeatedly] replaced," Lucas says. "I couldn’t figure it out because I’ve never seen anything like that.”
After consulting all of the bee–keeping professionals he knew, Lucas finally discovered that this meant that the queen wasn’t being properly fertilized. Lucas explains, “So basically what was happening… during the mating flight you’ll sometimes have improper fertilization, and [the queen will] start laying and she doesn't have enough eggs fertilized. So she'll lay and she'll lay and she'll lay and then she'll run out and she'll be replaced. So that kept on happening, and after that happens a certain amount of times the bees become increasingly more agitated and increasingly less willing to take in a new queen.”
In a last ditch effort to save the hive, Lucas explained that he forwent the natural process of queen selection in favor of artificially implanting a new queen.
"I ordered a single queen from California and it came in the mail in this box and it said, 'Warning: live queen bee inside'," Lucas laughs. After unsuccessfully installing this queen bee in the winter, Lucas knew this particular hive was on its last legs.
“Alright, this hive is going to go into the winter without a queen, and it’s not going to survive," he says. "It was super intense but really disappointing.” But, he adds hopefully, “It’ll be nice to have a fresh start.”
The Penn Bee–keeping Club is in a bit of a transitional phase. Lucas explains that they hope to kick off a new hive in mid to late April, and that he looks forward to harvesting the wax and honey from the old hives. Though the winter months yielded more disappointment than success, Lucas views these challenges as a learning opportunity rather than a roadblock. His biggest commitment is recruiting a new core of bee–keepers and passing on what he knows.
Mentioning the declining population of bees and their new status as an endangered species, Lucas finishes by discussing our role in upsetting the bees' environmental niche: "Scientists haven’t been able to figure out a biological interpretation for Colony Collapse Disorder. All we know is that it wasn’t always a problem… and somehow humans have made a change in the world that can lead to a collapse in the highly rigid social composition of a hive. And because it can’t be described biologically, it leaves you wondering what else it could be. Sometimes I wonder if what we have altered is something more abstract—some metaphysical underpinning in the scheme of life. There’s rarely a problem like this that just can’t be explained properly by science…. It’s just such a mystery, and it’s interesting to be closer to that."